Films like Stonewall, Milk, Philadelphia, And The Band Played On have dramatised key turning points in queer history but writer Dustin Lance Black takes a more holistic approach with his 8 hour miniseries When We Rise.
Not unlike a modern day Tales of the City, this roots itself in San Francisco, this time in the early 1970s. A cluster of gay and lesbian characters converge on the city which a contemporary Cleve (Guy Pearce) remembers as being a melting pot of stray souls.
“It wasn’t just me who heard the call. It was all of Us,” Cleve recalls.
The notion of ‘Us-es,’ as a term of unity, is a recurring theme here.
Austin P. McKenzie plays a somewhat androgynous young Cleve who leaves his parents in Arizona after his father (David Hyde Pierce) tells him homosexuality “is an illness, it can be cured.” Rejecting radical notions of electrotherapy, a defiant, spirited Cleve heads to the ‘safe harbour’ of San Francisco to live his life unfettered.
Similarly, young Roma (Emily Skeggs) who fell in love with a girl in the Peace Camps in West Africa finds a home in the Women’s Movement in the city. While she fights for her right to demonstrate, she juggles her emotions and identity.
Young sailor Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors) is reeling from a secret relationship in the Navy whilst serving in Vietnam. Trawling underground bars, and avoiding a homophobic military, he experiences both racism and homophobia.
But at this early juncture, San Francisco is far from the rainbow city we know today. The Mayor wanted hippies, queers and bikies out, and tourists in. The police regularly raided and beat those that gave it a bad name.
Throughout this tapestry of archival ideas there are bashings, raids, protests, gay beats, anonymous sex and turning tricks for a fast buck.
But this Us, versus Them, unites against oppression.
Despite the marquee, award-magnet, cast, it is the young principals who shine in the opening episode. Austin P. McKenzie is entrancing, with a performance that will put him on the map. There are echoes of a young Denzel Washington in Jonathan Majors’ performance.
Others including Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell and Denis O’Hare adopt supporting roles as pioneers for what would become Gay Liberation. Director Gus Van Sant sometimes uses close, intense shots to underline the emotion. Adding to an already-impressive list of creatives, composer Danny Elfman scores the soundtrack.
With so much anger and survival instinct, When We Rise is surprisingly light on love, the very trait that defines a community. And even lighter with sex. But perhaps this will expand in subsequent episodes, with HIV AIDS also a chapter that can’t be denied.
Like Queer as Folk, When We Rise burns brightly in its communal strength, making this an honest time capsule of modern American history.
When We Rise is now on SBS On Demand and screens 8:30pm Saturday March 11 on SBS.